The Alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi, the plant source of the Amazonian hallucinogen Ayahuasca, stimulate adult neurogenesis in vitro.
Banisteriopsis caapi is the basic ingredient of ayahuasca, a psychotropic plant tea used in the Amazon for ritual and medicinal purposes, and by interested individuals worldwide. Animal studies and recent clinical research suggests that B. caapi preparations show antidepressant activity, a therapeutic effect that has been linked to hippocampal neurogenesis. Here we report that harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline, the three main alkaloids present in B. caapi, and the harmine metabolite harmol, stimulate adult neurogenesis in vitro. In neurospheres prepared from progenitor cells obtained from the subventricular and the subgranular zones of adult mice brains, all compounds stimulated neural stem cell proliferation, migration, and differentiation into adult neurons. These findings suggest that modulation of brain plasticity could be a major contribution to the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca. They also expand the potential application of B. caapi alkaloids to other brain disorders that may benefit from stimulation of endogenous neural precursor niches.